The extinct woolly dog: Science sheds light on the pet’s history and purpose

Hjordis Niven
Hjordis Niven / Evening Standard/GettyImages

Woolly dogs once held a spiritual significance within the Coast Salish communities. As essential figures of rituals, they were treated as beloved family members. Salish people made sure to manage their breeding for years to maintain their unique genetic makeup.

Woolly dogs are now extinct, but they were prized breeds during pre-colonial times due to their white, thick undercoats, which were woven into blankets and ceremonial items. It’s unclear how this breed dwindled in number, but experts assumed many factors contributed to it. 

History of the Salish Woolly Dog

There was limited information on woolly dogs before scientists found the pelt that shed light on their history. 


A Salish woolly dog was a small breed with prick ears, a fox-like face, a curled tail, and a thick, white coat. In 1792, naval officers visited the Pacific Northwest and the captain at that time thought the woolly dog resembled a larger Pomeranian.

Special White Undercoats

Woolly dogs lived with the indigenous Coast Salish communities — what is now Washington State and British Columbia — in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. Their history was closely tied to the local people and culture.

They had unusually thick and warm coats comparable to sheep’s wool, so Salish weavers sheared them during autumn. A woolly dog bred for weaving produced high-quality textiles and blankets and used them in ceremonies.

The blankets also symbolized wealth. Women weavers often gave them away to high-status community members — like civic or religious leaders- at a public gathering. In some instances, the indigenous people also used them as a currency to buy or barter for goods.

Role Within the Community

Dogs today serve as emotional support pets, encouraging you when they sense you're stressed or in distress. It’s unclear whether Salish woolly dogs have the same ability or guarding skills that modern pets possess since they're confined to small islands to maintain the purity of their breed.

However, they did help their owners differently. It's believed that before 1862, Salish weavers mainly used dog hair to produce blankets and exceptional textiles for a living.

Relationship With Indigenous People

Due to the high significance and wealth representation of woolly dogs, it's believed they're most likely owned by high-ranking families and cared for by women in charge of weaving. When a dog died, it would be honored by burying it covered with a blanket.

Then and now, dogs were treated as family members and had a special connection with their caretakers, keeping them company through thick and thin. If there's a difference in the human-pet relationship between the indigenous and 21st-century people it's that dogs have become a significant factor in mental well-being.

People living with anxiety and depression rely on a 10-minute interaction with their fur friends to cope with mental health concerns.

Science Explains the Pet History

A recent study gave scientists more insight into the history of this Salish breed through a DNA analysis obtained from an adopted woolly dog named Mutton.

In the mid-19th century, George Gibbs — a naturalist and ethnographer, met Mutton and brought it to his home through adoption. When Mutton died years later, a longhair pelt was collected, which ended up in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

It was rediscovered in the early 2000s and became an instrument of study by Audrey Lin — an evolutionary molecular biologist who worked at the museum during that time.

The analysis of Mutton’s DNA found that woolly dogs arrived in the U.S. around 15,000 years ago and are considered pre-colonial breeds. Its closest relative was a 1,500-year-old dog from Prince Rupert Harbour. Based on findings, Mutton was only 16% of European ancestry and 84% a pre-colonial indigenous dog.

The data gave them insight into the thousand years-long history of Salish woolly dogs, the long distance they traveled with White settlers to reach America, and how impressive caretakers kept them reproductively isolated, preserving the genes for millennia, with Mutton surviving until the mid-19th century.

Reasons for Decline

The dog population declined throughout the 1800s for a few reasons.

  • The arrival of European settlers: They brought dogs that bred with Salish woolly dogs, decreasing their population and increasing the diversity of their genetics.
  • The decline of the indigenous population: Many were displaced and had to move away to escape colonization, while others died from diseases that settlers brought.
  • Introduction of machine-made blankets: Settlers also brought weaving machines. As hand weaving became inefficient, fur trading was won over and replaced by inexpensive machine-finished blankets and textiles.

By 1900, the number of Salish woolly dogs waned considerably, and by 1940, the breeds became rare and extinct.

It's not a surprise some species could disappear with time. Many dog breeds today are also at risk of extinction, but conservationists are doing their job to prevent this. Woolly dogs could have survived longer if there were preservation efforts in the past.

Reviving Coast Salish Woolly Dogs

Although scientists want to revive the woolly dog by cloning Mutton, there’s no way to do so as the DNA from the pelt is far too degraded after 160 years.

On a positive note, there are efforts to resurrect the dog-wool-weaving culture in the Salish communities using traditional methods. This initiative can help restore the indigenous culture associated with the breed.

Woolly Dogs Were More Than Just Pets

Mutton's greatest legacy is discovering the existence and purpose of pre-colonial dogs that lived around 15,000 years ago. They were an essential part of the culture of a thriving community and were engaged in several spiritual practices, helping shape the history of indigenous people.

Sure, dog fur isn't used to make blankets and pets aren't involved in religious festivities. If there's one similar thing then and now, it's that dogs remain important members of the family.

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